When the Associated Press college basketball poll was released Monday, the Arizona Wildcats were nowhere to be found. Wait, no, that’s not entirely accurate. They were not included among the top 25, but they were listed in the “others receiving votes” category (below Nevada, among others).
If you think this is a problem, however, you are mistaken. It is indicative of many problems, but positioning in the fourth poll of the season — or any poll, to be honest — doesn’t matter a lick.
MORE: How Collin Sexton, Alabama nearly pulled off 3-on-5 miracle
The problem at Arizona is the three consecutive defeats the Wildcats experienced over Thanksgiving in the Battle 4 Atlantis: first to N.C. State, then to SMU and finally to Purdue. Those results will make it more difficult to gain an attractive NCAA Tournament seed in March. They could, in a worst-case scenario, make it more difficult to gain entrance to the tournament.
Those defeats developed for a number of reasons — some of which can be addressed, some of which may stand through the course of the 2017-18 season, all of them addressed here in ascending order of importance:
When Arizona was shocked by N.C. State in its opening game at Atlantis, an ideal remedy would have been three days of practice and a buy-game opponent at the McKale Center. Instead, the Wildcats got less than 24 hours of rest before a game against a credible opponent with an elite talent in point guard Shake Milton.
Kentucky coach John Calipari declines to play in multi-team events such as this, and he is particularly disinterested in the three-games-in-three-days scenario present at Maui or Atlantis. The only other time in college hoops a team will face such a scenario is in a conference tournament, which doesn’t always mean a lot for an elite squad such as UK or U of A.
The Wildcats gathered five top-75 recruits for their 2017 recruiting class. After six games, four of them are averaging 14.5 points — combined. Add up the production of five-star wing Emmanuel Akot and four-star prospects Alex Barcello (point guard), Ira Lee (center) and Brandon Randolph (wing) and that’s all you get.
(The fifth recruit was center DeAndre Ayton. He’s the one player who is a bystander to all the problems on this list. Just wanted to remind you we know he’s there).
This ordinarily would not be an issue for Arizona, but the departure of Kobi Simmons after his freshman season for life in the G League and a foot injury to rugged sophomore Rawle Alkins has left the Wildcats thin on the perimeter. The Wildcats also need depth at point guard, which Barcello might not be ready to deliver.
DECOURCY: Porter Jr.’s arrival rebooted Mizzou hoops, then kicked fans in head
Late in the consolation-round loss to Purdue, with both teams playing to avoid an 0-3 trip, Arizona trailed by 20 points early in the second half. A desperate rally was not out of the question; we saw Butler and Duke pull off comebacks no more preposterous than the Wildcats faced.
An entry pass to Purdue’s Isaac Haas slipped over his shoulder and was gathered by Arizona big man Dusan Ristic, who forwarded the ball immediately to point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright. He recognized that star shooting guard Allonzo Trier was open on the right wing with a chance to beat the defense downcourt.
Trier, having turned over the ball eight times in the first two games, advanced toward the lane but, when he saw Purdue’s P.J. Thompson in front of him, pulled up just past the foul line and traveled. A confident player — a confident Trier — would have adjusted a bit to the right and used the board to finish the play. Trier ended his weekend in the Bahamas with a dozen turnovers. He also shot 3 of 16 from 3-point range. It’s almost certain these two factors were not unrelated.
The Wildcats allowed each piece of adversity to build until it did not matter what team presented the opposition.
Coach Sean Miller’s preference for pack-line defense generally has produced high-level results for the Wildcats, and on his best teams, their D was elite: No. 1 in 2014, No. 3 in 2015 in defensive efficiency.
In ranking No. 1 four seasons ago, the Wildcats allowed .86 points per possession. In the Bahamas, their opponents got 1.29 (Purdue), 1.23 (NCSU) and 1.0 (SMU). How bad is that? The 351st-ranked defense last season, North Carolina A&T, allowed 1.23 points per possession.
Arizona has forced only 11.8 turnovers per game, and that includes three games against overmatched opponents. Opponents are shooting 42.5 percent from the field and 38.0 percent from 3-point range. The only defensive stat that looks attractive is the team’s 5.0 blocks per game, which is largely the product of Ayton’s excellence.
This can be tightened up with time to recover, but that will not change the fact the Wildcats lack physicality with their on-ball defense and that Trier can be an indifferent defender.
MORE: Kevin Keatts well on his way to rebuilding N.C. State
3. Point guard
Yes, about that physicality issue. Here’s the deal. Jackson-Cartwright is listed at 5-11, 170 pounds. Maybe he’s all of that. Even if he is, PJC does not present a significant obstacle at the point of attack.
In his third college game, N.C. State’s Braxton Beverly hit the Wildcats for 20 points on 5-of-7 shooting. He didn’t match that number in his next two games combined.
To justify what he gives up, Jackson-Cartwright must function as an elite playmaker. He’s capable of that; he averaged 4.1 assists in 24 minutes last season. He is averaging 5.7 now. But part of creating plays is not giving up the basketball along the way. He had three turnovers against SMU, including one with 1:40 left and Arizona trailing by five.
There isn’t much help for PJC now. Arizona needs him to excel. In the three defeats, he did not.
Miller said following the tournament he did not believe the Wildcats would have gone 0-3 had Alkins been available to play. Alkins averaged 10.9 points and 4.9 rebounds last season and brings a sense of toughness to the Wildcats they obviously lack at the moment.
The timetable for his return originally was set at 8-12 weeks. The first of those mile markers is about to be reached, but Arizona has not indicated Alkins will be back soon.
Alkins’ return would help address items No. 4 and 5 on this list — and No. 2, of course. But the big one is beyond his reach.
NBA DRAFT 2018: What we learned from Bagley vs. Bamba
No one outside the program can assess the full impact of the arrest and indictment of assistant coach Book Richardson, a well-liked figure who often was a key communicator with the players on the roster.
It’s possible no one inside can fully grasp the damage, either, as it is mostly intangible. There is his absence from practices and team meetings and the travel party; that part is real. But how it affected the preparation and performance that led to three consecutive losses in the Bahamas can only be addressed as conjecture.
When a team with this degree of potential performs as poorly as Arizona did at Atlantis, though, it cannot be dismissed.
This is the Arizona problem that is not going away. There have been teams that have transformed adversity into a cause, but perhaps not something so daunting and disconcerting.
Arizona did not lose its season at Atlantis. But it did uncover some simmering issues that will need to be managed for the Wildcats to be revived.